Fla. still failing to pay wrongfully imprisoned

Published: Sunday, January 20, 2008 at 2:21 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 20, 2008 at 2:21 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Alan Crotzer is working at a landscaping company, hoping one day to be compensated for the 24 years he spent in prison for a rape he didn't commit.

Alan Crotzer
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Alan Crotzer

Alan Crotzer, center, throws his arms up in the air as he leaves the Hillsborough County Courthouse early Monday, Jan. 23, 2006, in Tampa, Fla., with attorney David Menschel, right, after being released from prison. Crotzer is working at a landscaping company, hoping one day to be compensated for the 22 years he spent in prison for a rape he didn't commit.

Chris O'Meara/The Associated Press

Florida lawmakers have for a couple years failed to pass a bill to pay him and he's again asking the Legislature for $1.25 million for the two decades of freedom he gave up.

It's too bad for Crotzer that he doesn't live somewhere else. Several states have automatic compensation for people who have been wrongfully imprisoned and then released something that's happening more and more because of increasing use of DNA to prove innocence.

But Florida remains one of 28 states that don't guarantee compensation for those who spent precious years behind bars for something they didn't do. Nine men have been freed by DNA in Florida in recent years, but only one has received money.

Crotzer, 47, is seeking money for himself but he'd rather the state make money available for anyone in his situation. He said most men released after years behind bars especially those who were, like him, young when imprisoned have a hard time starting over without help. They're usually broke, and most have no job prospects. All they really know is prison life.

"I don't have any education, I don't have any real job skills. So I'm doing what I can," Crotzer said in a recent interview. "I went on public assistance.

"They really need to put something in place," for compensation, Crotzer said. "How can you take more than half a man's life and expect to do nothing for him?"

In 1982, Crotzer was convicted of robbing a Tampa family and kidnapping and raping a 38-year-old woman and a 12-year-old girl at gunpoint during the crime. Crotzer said he was nowhere near the scene and witnesses corroborated that, but he had a previous robbery conviction when he was 17 and a witness picked him out of a lineup. He was sentenced to 130 years in prison.

Years later, another man convicted in the robbery told police that Crotzer wasn't with them that night and revealed the real rapist. DNA testing along with the other evidence then convinced prosecutors that he wasn't involved. He was released in 2006.

People getting out of prison usually have extraordinary needs, said Jenny Greenberg, policy director for The Innocence Project of Florida, which helps prisoners who claim to be innocent get DNA testing.

"All of these guys suffer from features of post-traumatic stress disorder. They all need immediate mental health care," Greenberg said.

Many need other medical care too, after sometimes going years with inadequate treatment in prison, she said.

The state has immunity from large lawsuits so exonerated prisoners must go to the Legislature and ask for compensation. Lawmakers can pass a special "claims bill" that pays people back for wrongs by the government.

But only Wilton Dedge has managed to get such a bill through the Legislature. Dedge spent 22 years in prison for a rape he didn't commit and in 2005 lawmakers awarded him $2 million.

Dedge didn't just take his money and forget about it. He recently wrote Gov. Charlie Crist urging compensation for the others.

"Anyone who suffered as I did deserves compensation," Dedge wrote. "It's not like the money magically dissolves all the pain and trauma and restores our stolen years and lost family, but it is critical and the very least that our state can do."

Senate President Ken Pruitt said this week that compensation for the wrongfully convicted is one of his priorities for this year.

"Government gets it wrong sometimes, and when we do, we must take responsibility," said Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie. Crist has also said the wrongly imprisoned deserve compensation.

State Sen. Arthenia Joyner is sponsoring a bill to provide most exonerated inmates $100,000 for every year they spent behind bars. For Crotzer, that would mean more than $2 million. It would also provide free education something Crotzer said he'd particularly like to have.

"What as a just and noble society should we do when we've locked someone up and they've spent a significant portion of their lives behind bars when it was wrong?" asked Joyner, D-Tampa. "We have a responsibility to do the right thing."

Leaders in the House and Senate say, however, that some lawmakers would only vote for compensation legislation that limits eligibility to people who have never committed any crimes.

Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, who is working on the measure in the House, said government has a moral obligation to compensate people who are "completely innocent."

"I'm hard-pressed to sell to the public that if somebody has committed a rape, that for that second rape that they didn't commit we're going to compensate them," Bogdanoff said.

Bogdanoff said even with an automatic compensation law, ineligible people as Crotzer would be would still be able to seek a claims bill, and tell lawmakers why they should be compensated.

Crotzer said that's great, but that process hasn't worked well for him he's in his third year trying to get money from the Legislature. And just because he committed a crime when he was young, doesn't make it OK that the state deprived him of more than two decades of his life for something else he didn't do, he said.

"What they're doing is trying to find a reason not to do what's right," Crotzer said.

"I can understand not wanting to compensate someone who has habitually committed crimes," he said. He noted that many wrongfully convicted prisoners are black men who have come into contact with law enforcement before, which sometimes makes them more likely to be suspects in crimes when they weren't involved.

"Legislators can look for reasons why not," Crotzer said. "They should look for reasons to do the right thing."

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